When Jane was thirteen, she said something I also said from the time I was very young: “I am never getting married and I am never having children.” When I said that, people laughed and told me I’d change my mind. (I did, but only about marriage.) When Jane said it, her father took it to heart. Hearing his daughter announce her disdain for marriage and family, he left his wife and child the next day. Her mother has never let her forget it.
Jane doesn’t let her absentee father and passive-aggressive mother keep her down, though. She becomes an accomplished Lit prof, even though nothing’s ever easy for her with men or with her career. When level-headed Jane winds up in a relationship with mercurial film buff Theo, even she isn’t wholeheartedly confident about their future. And then, of course, there’s a baby. Theo, never father material to begin with, embarks on a bizarre get-rich-quick scheme with a slinky film distributor. And though until this point we’ve seen Jane handle lots of very rough situations, she’s not prepared for the ocean of bad heading her way. When it lands squarely upon her, she has no choice but to leave the world. Try as she might, though, she won’t get her way. The world isn’t ready to let go of Jane. In fact, she’s going to prove essential to several people she’d never have met if she had given up when she did.
It’s never easy to read about someone who struggles with depression and miserable circumstances. I know some people who reviewed it on Goodreads were bothered by the relentless run of bad circumstances that Jane had to deal with. But without miserable circumstances, there just isn’t a book. Without conflict, trial, and something to defeat, you just have a character traipsing through a field of wildflowers. It’s not so much what Jane suffers—and oh, she really suffers—but how she processes her suffering, the ways she fails, how she gets up the next day. While it’s not a gritty, urban novel where poverty is at the root of most social problems, it was just as wrenching for me to read. Leaving the World takes its characters up a level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and reminds us that, just because we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, it doesn’t mean that our struggles are any less harrowing or that our mistakes are any less catastrophic.
In Jane Howard, Douglas Kennedy gave me an intelligent female protagonist who wasn’t a cold fish, socially inept, or cutesy-quirky; a woman who was deeply troubled without being weak and who made grievous errors of judgment but didn’t come across as stupid while doing so. The book is unabashedly commercial yet delves deeply into the human condition. Jane is a whole woman, a character I’d want to be friends with. It’s awful of me to admit that I never expect a male author to give me this much emotional resonance, and it’s rare when one does. Leaving the World was a wonderful surprise of a read and I can’t wait to read more of Kennedy’s work.